Sunday 21 July 2019

'God damn it, why won't some Irish people call me?' - Pulitzer Prize winning journalist

He's '100pc Irish' and has just made global headlines by winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. ­Siobhán Brett spoke to Art Cullen, editor of a tiny, family-owned newspaper in rural Iowa

Family affair: Art (centre) with son Tom and brother John (right), who started the paper from scratch 27 years ago
Family affair: Art (centre) with son Tom and brother John (right), who started the paper from scratch 27 years ago
Art Cullen with a subscriber, also in overalls.

After being awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on April 10, Art Cullen's phone rang, and rang, and rang.

But for the editor of the Storm Lake Times, a family-owned local title in rural Iowa with a circulation of 3,000, the morning of April 11 was, like any other Tuesdays reserved for getting his newspaper to the printers.

"There was this one guy who kept calling up from the BBC. Persistent," Cullen says at his desk last week on a day that wasn't Tuesday. "Well, he was doing the very same thing I tell my son [a staff reporter at the paper] to do: call him until his head explodes."

His own head under increasing pressure, Cullen finally snapped at the reporter, using "bugger off" in the hope that use of the vernacular would grant a reprieve until 11am. "God damn it, I said, why won't some Irish people call me?"

Shortly after 11am, Cullen, who professes himself "100% Irish", received a call from RTÉ. He was gleeful in the retelling. "I said, ha, ha! St Patrick and St Brigid are running this show!" he cried.

Cullen, who is 59, says "the biggest kick out of" becoming a Pulitzer-winning writer came from the messages received from Irish admirers and supporters. "I just don't know if you Irish people know how people of Irish descent yearn for the old sod," he says. "I just don't know."

Art Cullen with a subscriber, also in overalls.
Art Cullen with a subscriber, also in overalls.

His newspaper was the only one in America to endorse "the great Irishman Joe Biden" for president in 2007. Cullen says he was "very proud" of Enda Kenny's recent meeting with US President Donald Trump. Despite what he calls his "sentimentalism about Ireland", he has yet to visit. He hopes to this year.

Such a trip would be "like a Muslim going to Mecca", Cullen adds. He believes his ancestors left Kilkenny for the US during the famine, initially working in lead mines in Dubuque before migrating into the Iowan prairies to farm on the beginning of America's western grasslands.

Cullen's mother was a great storyteller and raconteur, never short of a topic for debate at dinner or a bedtime story about rebellion battles. "The minute I learned how to talk, I never shut up," says Cullen. The rest of his family is similarly wired. "My brother John is our publisher. My brother Jim edits a political journal in Austin, Texas. My brother Tom is a playwright and speechwriter. All we do is drink and write. I swear it's the Irish in us, it really is. In elementary school, they didn't bother with me in English. I had it."

The Storm Lake Times publishes on Wednesdays and Fridays. Cullen's editorial writing process, as he tells it, is straightforward. "I read voraciously on Iowa, on agriculture, environment, and economics. Usually, a light goes on, and I roll. No drafting. I just read, and read, and read, and then disgorge in 15 or 30 minutes. I never outline or review," he says. "The first draft is always the best."

Who edits it? "I edit it. If there's typos in it, that's my fault."

The editorial staff comprises a sports editor, a news reporter, Cullen's 24-year-old son Tom, a photographer in Dolores, Cullen's wife, and Cullen himself. "There are 10 people in total, and half of them are Cullens," he says.

The Storm Lake Times is, Cullen points out, "not packed with investigative journalism or me screaming from the mountaintop". "Our paper is filled up with obituaries, birth notices, babies and dogs. We'll take anything. We feel if it's important enough for people to bring to us, it's important enough for us to run."

Word of Cullen's win was warmly received nationally and internationally, and wedged the name of the Storm Lake Times between the big names of routine winners. The New York Times weathered a level of embarrassment on the morning prior to the awards being announced by printing a blurb on page 2: "How does it feel to get a Pulitzer Prize? Ask The Times's 2017 winners yourself". A spokesman for the newspaper called it "a mistake, combined with a little bit of hopeful thinking".

Cullen's thinking had been hopeful, too. Michael Gartner, a former editor of the Ames, Iowa-based Daily Tribune, won a Pulitzer for his editorials in 1997. Ames is about 130 miles from Storm Lake. "So they do occasionally select a small newspaper," says Cullen. Gartner, now in his late 70s, told Cullen to enter. "He said, you're good enough. I entered it, and I won."

The Cullens sold the family-owned printing press last May and now print at a facility an hour away. "The press, my brother, and I, we were all getting too old. I miss the smell of it, and I miss the sound of it. I don't miss the work. That's another trait of the Irish, isn't it? Not necessarily industrious. Big into ideas."

There are 280 newspapers in Iowa, a state 1.7 times the size of Ireland. The number of independently owned titles is dropping off, but Cullen has never been approached by a prospective buyer. "Nobody would be crazy enough to buy this," he adds.

Half of the $15,000 (€13,700) Pulitzer prize money will be given to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a "coalition of journalists, librarians, lawyers, educators and other Iowans devoted to open government", and roughly half has been earmarked for charities dedicated to resettling refugees in Storm Lake. Before that, there are plans to throw a party.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, the Freedom of Information Council, which allies itself closely to the paper and others, took in $12,000 in donations. The Times itself took in $5,000 in online subscriptions from people beyond Iowa who felt compelled to support its work. A year-long subscription to The Times costs between $60 and $77, depending on location, and an online subscription is $60.

"We have a crappy website and I don't care about it," Cullen says. "The hell with it. People copy from it and there's no money to be made from it.

"We're print people. I read headlines online. When I read, I read on paper."

Art Cullen's winning formula

Pulitzer committee citation: "For editorials fuelled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa."

August 20, 2016

"We are grateful that US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack phoned us last week to clear up misconceptions we may have had regarding his views on water quality. Vilsack, whom we consider as good a friend as you can have in politics, declined to answer our questions during a press conference sponsored by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. We were incredulous, and he was equally so when we penned an editorial suggesting that someone had gagged him.

The phone call washes it all away. He took all the time we needed to answer our questions, and we expressed regrets to each other. We continue to believe that he is the best secretary of agriculture since Henry Wallace and the best governor since Harold Hughes.

But we have a respectful disagreement…"

March 30, 2016

"The Republican Party created the vacuum into which The Donald strolled through racism, sexism, nationalism and obstructionism. Trump will be the nominee without a brokered convention. He deserves it. The Republican Party of today deserves him. Maybe this nomination can bring the party's good senses back in the next cycle."

March 3, 2016

"Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes. Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America.

What's more, the public probably suspects that it should not cost billions of dollars to fix the problem. It doesn't. The solution demands that we quit farming into the ditch and over the fenceline. If we left 10pc of Iowa's marginal land fallow, the nitrate problem would disappear. Iowa State University research proves it."

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